Meyer Schapiro: Thinking between Art and the 20th century

Alice Neel, Portrait of Meyer Schapiro, 1947

Last month, a workshop that I organized on the American art historian and New York intellectual Meyer Schapiro (1904-1996) finally came to fruition; long delayed and repeatedly rescheduled because of the pandemic, the event grew out of my first book project, attracted over 300 registrations, and a recording of it has now been posted online. Hosted by the Centre for American Art at the Courtauld Institute here in London, the workshop was conceived as an afternoon of engagement with texts by Schapiro that were pre-circulated among the attendees. Broken up into three sessions of one hour each, the discussions were fittingly initiated by a presentation by a scholar who is currently working on Schapiro’s work and complex legacy: the first by myself, the second by Jérémie Koering of the University of Fribourg, and the third by Hagi Kenaan of University of Tel Aviv.  Other scholars, including members of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project, joined as discussants and in the intervening days I’ve continued to think about the workshop and the ideas that it helped generate.  In what follows I offer up some further reflections.

Perhaps more than anything else, over the past month I’ve been deliberating on the jarring, perhaps tongue-in-cheek quote with which I began my workshop presentation.  Found in a letter of 4 May 1938, Theodor Adorno once wrote to his celebrated friend Walter Benjamin that

“You should really establish contact with [Meyer] Schapiro, who is a great connoisseur of your writings and in general a man as informed as he is imaginative, though not exactly delicate, for example, when he explained to us that he considers your work on mechanical reproduction compatible with the method of logical positivism.”

„sollten Sie den Kontakt mit [Meyer] Schapiro aufnehmen, der ein großer Kenner Ihrer Schriften und überhaupt ein ebenso informierter, wie einfallsreicher Mann ist, wenn auch nicht eben heikel, indem er uns z. B. auseinandersetzte, daß er Ihre Reproduktionsarbeit mit der Methode des logischen Positivismus für vereinbar halte.“

As is self-evident from this passage and as I noted in the workshop, since the Frankfurt School was notoriously critical of what its members saw as the instrumentalizing logic underwriting modern scientific practice, Schapiro’s purported claim here clearly misses or overlooks a central premise of Benjamin’s work.  At the same time, it is important to recognize that this quote need not be seen as evidence of Schapiro’s ignorance but rather can be understood as effectively marking a difference between Schapiro’s and Benjamin’s thought that should be taken seriously and that has been underexplored. If the quote itself makes this difference seem extreme and perhaps even insurmountable, another passage from Adorno’s correspondence about Schapiro fittingly helps reconcile these two opposing views.  Just a few months later, Adorno wrote to Benjamin: 

“How intensively [Schapiro] has grappled with your work may be evident to you from the question he addressed to me: what is the relation of your criticism of the auratic to the auratic character of your own writings.”

“Wie intensiv [Schapiro] sich mit Ihren Dingen auseinandergesetzt hat, mag Ihnen hervorgehen aus der Frage, die er an mich richtete: wie das Verhältnis Ihrer Kritik des Auratischen zum auratischen Charakter Ihrer eigenen Schriften sei.”

Here it becomes clear that Schapiro did in fact understand Benjamin’s work quite well, a fact that is further testified to by Adorno calling Schapiro a “Kenner” or connoisseur of Benjamin and even by Adorno’s later suggestion that Schapiro deserved an “Ehrenexemplar” or honorary copy of one of Benjamin’s books. But significant questions remain. How could Schapiro recognize an auratic quality to Benjamin’s writings—perhaps their messianic tendencies—but also relate them to logical positivism or midcentury science?  Though I don’t have an easy answer to this question, my intuition is that it might be more productive to reverse the question and to query the messianic qualities of logical positivism than the “scientific” qualities of Benjamin.  Logical positivism does, after all, make something of a fetish out of “scientific” facts.

Meyer Schapiro, Drawing of Fellows of the Institute for Social Research listening to a radio broadcast by Hitler, New York City, September 1938

I realize now that I began my workshop presentation with Adorno’s letter because it seems to me that art history still needs to better understand the complex place of positivism within its history.  Gone are the postmodern days, I would submit, when the term “positivism” can effectively function as an invective within the discipline. Though logical positivist or logical empiricist thinkers like Rudolf Carnap, Charles Morris, and Otto Neurath are still little discussed among art historians, there is a growing body of scholarship on the history of their collaborations which quite clearly shows that their work is anything but a monolithic doctrine.  The very fact that the Encyclopedia of the Unified Sciences, which was their joint editorial project, produced Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, John Dewey’s Theory of Value, and was to include a never-completed volume on the interpretation of visual art by Meyer Schapiro, shows just how diverse logical empiricism in fact was.  As scholars continue to historicize this movement and tease out its factions, inconsistencies, and dead ends, I think it is also productive to imagine what it might have been. How remarkable would it be to have Schapiro’s book about the interpretation of visual art alongside Thomas Kuhn’s famous intervention on the history and philosophy of science?

            By turning to the prehistory of logical empiricism in the Anglo-American world of the 18th and 19th centuries, my current book project as part of the Bilderfahrzeuge Project—titled Specters of Empiricism—is an attempt to confront related issues.  There, however, instead of asking about the place of empiricism within art historiography, I query the place of concrete works of art within the lives of prominent Anglo-American empiricists. This difference aside, another anecdote from Schapiro’s life can help us understand empiricism’s relation to art history. Speaking in an interview in 1991, Schapiro recalled that in the early 1940s he was involved in a debate organized by the famous surrealist leader André Breton about the notorious Marxist term “dialectical materialism.”  Recruiting the logical empiricist philosophers of science Ernest Nagel and A.J. Ayer to his side, Schapiro opposed Breton, the poet Nicolas Calas, and Jean van Heijenoort, who was Trotsky’s secretary and a historian of mathematics.  Schapiro continued:

“Breton was shocked that I did not believe that dialectical materialism was an adequate philosophy on which to ground theoretical and practical issues. It worked as a way of expressing concepts through the model of dialogue between people of opposing views, so that they would sooner or later generate an approach which would reveal certain aspects of the problems which could be grounds for criticism of idealistic views; that’s all I would accept. But the idea that there was a formula, the three terms and the logic of dialectic different from the logic of more practical theory, that was a mode of speculation — the official character of dialectical materialism in Russia and in the parties in Europe and in America — such factors were an obstacle to any clear thinking on these matters.”

Apart from its evident relation to Schapiro’s vigorously independent Marxism, this anecdote also resonates with Schapiro’s ostensible belief about the compatibility of logical positivism with dialectical thinking like that practiced by Benjamin, which is not to say that Benjamin was a dialectical materialist.  Here it becomes clear that, for Schapiro, “dialectics” was another way of engaging in critical dialogue grounded in forms of theoretical materialism, itself a general form of thinking that for Schapiro surely included the materialism underlying modern scientific practice.  For all the compelling complexity and sophistication of Benjamin’s claims about the transformation of the aura of artworks under conditions of capitalism and mechanical reproduction, in other words, Schapiro believed such arguments were ultimately reducible to similar norms of evaluation as those held up in modern scientific practice. Whether or not such a claim is actually true, of course, is another matter and easily contestable.  I can’t imagine that Adorno or Benjamin would ever agree with such an optimistic view of “science.” However, their philosophies have now also become matters of intellectual history, rather than pure analytic assertions about how we can “know” the past, and we should be careful to distinguish these two sides of their writing from the place of “positivism” in art historical practice today.  To fail to do so, it seems fitting to conclude, would risk reifying Benjamin’s work into the very unreflective science that the Frankfurt School—not to mention Schapiro himself—rightly criticized. Indeed, just as Adorno described Benjamin’s work as “philosophy directed against philosophy” so too did Schapiro paraphrase Feuerbach and claim that “a true philosopher does not have a philosophy,” thereby revealing a parallel between his work and that of the Frankfurt School that we might recognize after all.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Oliver O'Donnell (March 19, 2021). Meyer Schapiro: Thinking between Art and the 20th century. BILDERFAHRZEUGE. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from

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